Dear StartupNation: I’m forming a new business under a unique name. A friend said I should copyright the name by sending it to the Library of Congress in Washington, DC and in a sealed envelope to myself so there’s a record of when it was created. Will that protect me against someone using the same name?
Basically, your friend’s advice gets you zip. The safeguard you need to pursue is a trademark for your startup business or a service mark - a form of relatively low-cost legal protection for this type of “intellectual property.”
A trademark is a crucial step to protecting a startup business name. But it differs greatly from its legal cousins, the patent and copyright. Many entrepreneurs confuse patents, trademarks and copyrights. And while there are similarities, they serve different purposes.
- According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), a trademark is a word, name, symbol, device (or combination of those) used in business to indicate a source of the goods (your business) and to distinguish those goods from those sold by another business. A service mark is the same as a trademark, except that it identifies and distinguishes the source of a service rather than a product. In practice, however, the terms are often used interchangeably. The trademark blocks others from using a confusingly similar name, but doesn’t prevent anyone from making the same goods or selling the same service under a different name.
- A patent for an invention grants a specific legal property right to the inventor - “the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale or selling” the same invention.
- A copyright is harder to define. It is mainly a protection for authors of original works, including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic and other intellectual works, both published and unpublished.
Trademark filings are more nuanced that many people think, and it may be worth spending $1,000 to $1,500 on a trademark lawyer who can help you get it right.